We arrived on the 23rd December into Ho Chi Minh City, excited for some Christmas indulgence in the form of cheese, a rooftop bar and infinity pool, more cheese, and a definitively non-backpacker room on the 19th floor of the MGallery Hotel Des Artes.
In true ‘The Day We Caught The Train’ style, we arrived by overnight sleeper train from Hoi An. Knocking on the shutters of our first night’s budget hotel at 5.30am, through the gaps we could see the poor night guard dragging himself from his sleeping bag to let us in. “Check-in not until 12“, he said, but we could “wait at the computers until then“. Either our blog typing was keeping him up, or the Vietnamese hospitality kicked in once he’d wiped the sleep from his eyes, because 2 minutes later he offered us a free room, allowing us to catch up on some much needed zeds, after having shared our four person train berth with a family of four (you do the maths).
The cheap backpacker area, Pham Ngu Lao, is in District 1 – the large centre of HCMC. Life here, as we’d seen in Hanoi, takes place mainly in the street. Low plastic stools and tables spill out of narrow bars and restaurants, scooter repairs happen on the pavement, vegetables are chopped and prepared from doorsteps. But, rather than the pho and hotpots of Hanoi, many of the restaurants in Pham Ngu Lao were advertising Yorkshire Tea, full-English breakfasts, and cheap burgers. Banh Mi was still on the menu, a Vietnamese baguette filled with pork sausage slices.
We had just two plans for day 1: Watch Star Wars, and buy supplies for Christmas.
District 1 centres around the upmarket streets of Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue, both bedecked in Christmas lights. Finding your way there is easy; head straight for the tallest skyscraper in town, the Bitexco Tower. It’s easy to spot by the 60th floor helipad jutting out of the side. But don’t expect any helicopters swooping in to land; a fairly big engineering oversight means anything landing there would blow the windows out of the building. We did wonder if they found that out the hard way. On the 5th floor was the cinema, where, from our sofa seat, we were transported to a galaxy far, far away.
Just around the corner from the Bitexco Tower was the Annam Gourmet Market, which much online research had told us was our best bet for Christmas supplies; French cheese, Swiss chocolate, and prosecco. For twice as much money as our cinema tickets had cost, we found a Lindt bear (still better value than the $2 Star Wars ticket, according to some), and about twice that again for a couple of pieces of cheese (turns out money can buy you happiness).
Caveat time. Firstly, Ho Chi Minh City is huge. Secondly, our plan for Christmas was to eat, drink and be merry in our little slice of luxury for 3 days. This meant we hardly left District 1, and didn’t do all that much sightseeing. Fate did conspire to show us a few sights anyway; our hotel happened to be right next to the Reunification Palace and the imposing 19th Century Notre Dame Cathedral, which this year was attended not only by the city’s many Catholics, but also by a huge number of Buddhists. 2015 was unique as Christmas fell on a full moon, so both faiths celebrated together. There is another French building that tops many HCMC sightseeing agendas. Christmas took us there too, as a long-awaited Christmas parcel from home arrived just-in-time on our last day. A few thousand Dong would release it from quarantine. A price well worth paying, mainly for the treats inside, but also because it meant a trip to the beautiful painted maps, gigantic portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and tall arches of the famous Post Office building.
Christmas in Hotel Des Artes was blissfully easy. We cracked out the cheese, chocolate, and wine, supplemented them with more of the same from room service, and bravely ventured out as far as the rooftop bar and infinity pool, the free cocktails and sushi in the 22nd floor Executive Lounge, and even all the way down to the 3rd floor spa for full body massages. Not feeling bad for us yet? We also made it across the glass-floored sky-bridge to the next skyscraper for a roast turkey dinner.
Another highlight of our stay was to share it with an old friend. No, not Santa (though he did make an appearance). Our slightly less bearded and much less rotund buddy Red happened to be in town with Penny, on their way north through Vietnam. It was with them that we finally ventured out of the MGallery on on a foodie night tour of the city by moped.
Saigon Adventure had only been up and running for the last 6 months. Staffed by a group of young locals looking to practice their English whilst making money, it was a cheaper option than other fancier tours on Vespas or led by guides in traditional dress, and whilst the foodie aspect was a little underwhelming in parts, it otherwise turned into a night out in Ho Chi Minh with four locals; unexpected and a lot of fun.
The food started out promisingly (if not deliciously) with something none of us had had before; crab soup with ‘petrified egg.’ Surprisingly low on crab content (too expensive for standard street food, but sells well to have it in the title apparently!), it was fresh and tasty, if a bit gloopy (think egg yolk consistency), but the egg, blackened after 6 months buried underground, tasted about six times as eggy. Next up were two make-your own dishes at other street food stalls across the city. ‘Summer rolls’ (a steamed pork noodle roll) made at a stall in the night-time flower market, and a street food version of the banh trang trung pancakes we’d first tried in Hue. A walk through a fresh fruits market, snacking on tamarinds, Vietnamese cherries, and kumquats, was followed by a slightly underwhelming main course of BBQ pork and broken rice (like rice, but in even more manageable chunks?)
The headline for us, though, was the great time we had with the guides. We were each assigned one as our moped driver, zipping us around town, pointing out sights and yelling funny facts over their shoulder as we scooted through the city’s many districts. They joined us for each meal, demonstrating how to wrap up the pancakes, peel tamarind fruit, and say ‘cheers’ in Vietnamese. After four mini-meals together, the tour was over but the night wasn’t. The logical next step was karaoke and they scooted us over to their favourite place. We murdered a few V-pop tunes, they schooled us on Westlife, Timian’s rendition of Santa Baby was a big hit, but turns out a love for Champagne Supernova is universal.
Though the traditional Vietnamese character is perhaps diluted in District 1 by comparison with the capital Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh is a world city where you can pick up food from around the globe, Peruvian, Argentinian, Korean, Chinese in Chinatown, or Japanese in Little Japan. We treated ourselves to Christmas cupcakes and eggs Benedict at L’Usine, liquid nitrogen ice cream concoctions at IKEM (coffee, fresh orange, and cointreau – you read it here first!), quesadillas and chorizo hotdogs at Relish & Sons, and steaks at Refinery – a former opium producer now plying HCMC with addictive fare of a much tastier, brunchier kind.